Published on Friday, September 16, 2011
Doc Galen's Medicine Show
By K. H. Fenner
"We've got to get out of Wyoming, Doc," I said. "You're freezing us to death up here."
"All the more reason for the locals to buy my warming ointment," Doc grumbled, staring stubbornly ahead as he cracked his whip.
"Except we've seen nobody for over a week. Business was better south of here. We could always try Rooksville—"
"There's snakes down there and buffalo up here. "
I supposed the rise of buffalo hunts gave him a case of the buffalo fever, or at least gave him ideas for new gimmicks to attract a wider audience for the show. I decided not to ask. He was frequently prey to strange fancies.
I still couldn't get over the fact that I was part of a traveling medicine show. It wasn't what my family expected of me. They wanted me to be a surgeon. But I was ousted from Jefferson Medical College due to a little disagreement about ethics between Dr. Samuel Gross and me... I prefer not to talk about it too much. At least I had enough money at the time to buy myself a convenient degree.
So I got coughed out of Philadelphia (I couldn't risk practicing anything there) and ended up meandering out West with Doc Galen and his medicine show. There were only three of us: just me, Doc, and Johnny Swiftbow (whose real name was Patrick), our red-headed fiddler.
At least for all Doc Galen knew, I was genuine. I was the one who was good at trepanning and pulling teeth. He had no medical training at all, and he was afraid to attempt any such feats in the first place. So he needed me for my expertise and he was stuck with me.
He also liked having me around for aesthetic purposes, or as he put it, for "class." Being a city boy always marked me as a curiosity, and while my looks drew a female audience, my acting instilled pity (and thus income) —I was always his talented valetudinarian who got miraculously cured by his useless tonics.
Not to mention that I was the one with the fancy waistcoats. They fit me nicely. Nothing fit Doc Galen nicely. Not even his drawers.
"We're always coming across snakes wherever we go," I argued after a moment's reflection on how to reason with him well enough to drag him out of his mulishness. "And regardless of what sort of beasts we're surrounded by, your ointment simply doesn't work and there's no way of sweet-talking yourself out of that one."
"He's right," Johnny piped from behind. "All it ever does is make me break out in a rash."
"Shut up," Doc barked over his shoulder, grumbling as he resituated himself where he sat. "It works. You've just used so much of it on yourself that it doesn't work properly on you anymore, that's all. Like an immunity, except for the, uh, side effects. Isn't that right, Dr. Payne?"
I shrugged, not in the mood to discuss rashes, inflammation, or anything remotely related. It wasn't exactly the current my thoughts were flowing through at the time. "Could be, but considering that since you've started using it religiously to the point that all of your skin is raw-beef red, I'd say that neither one of you are immune. If anything, you're allergic"
Doc swore. "That's not what I call expert medical advice."
"Maybe not, but you can't deny that we aren't making any money on your authentic medicinal ointment. Your peeling face scares everyone away."
"That's why I want to get rid of it. And I can only do that here, where it's cold. "
"Or you could toss it all in some river where it belongs so we can go back south where we can make some money."
"You just want to go to Rooksville and I tell you—we ain't going there! I don't even understand why you always have your heart fixated on that place!"
"According to the log, you did damn well in Rooksville, Arizona." The date of that entry was before I had joined Doc, so I never understood his antipathy towards Rooksville.
Perhaps it was his paranoia that attracted me to the town. But more money was made there than in any other place. To me, it was a gold mine.
"I don't want to discuss Rooksville snakes," Doc whined peevishly. "We sell the ointment up here, get a buffalo, then we go down to New Mexico."
"So you want to kill a buffalo?"
"I want a live buffalo. Preferably two, but I'll take whatever I can get. They'll pull the wagon and the sight will draw crowds like you'd never believe."
Yes, perplexed and pointing crowds like those who once gathered around John Hunter in England years and years ago, except that old surgeon knew what he was doing, as opposed to Doc, who... didn't know much of anything, as far as I was concerned.
"But wouldn't that be dangerous, Doc?" Johnny asked. I often longed to adopt that orphaned voice of reason.
"Course not. Enough of that or I'll make you walk behind the wagon again. And a buffalo's not as dangerous as a Rooksville snake. Total nonsense. Now toss me another blanket, will you?"
Nonsense. Rather, no sense in the head of the man who let the vague possibility of a little attention from an audience overrule his logic. At least I could crush a Rooksville snake under my foot with no trouble. Not so with a buffalo. The buffalo happens to have tossing and crushing down to a fine art.
Doc found his buffalo, all right, after about a fortnight later of freezing our asses off. He found a nice young buffalo, just like he wanted, in hopes that it would be easier to tame. But its mother saw Doc and she wasn't too thrilled about it. So she killed him. And I wasn't too happy with that, either, so I shot her. I kept the calf, however. It'd be a shame to go through all of that effort, have a life lost, and walk away without the prize we were trying to obtain. Then Doc's death would've been in vain. So I kept the calf for his sake.
And every time I looked at the damn calf, every time it bellowed and cried, I saw stout ol' Doc tossed flailing in the air like an overstuffed doll by the horns of the Mrs. Buffalo. She trampled him before I could even think; I was frozen stiff. And so I couldn't save him. The little bit of med school that I had taught me naught of buffalo rage.
"Now what, Johnny?" I asked gruffly as I struck the cross into the earth that covered my old boss. I felt more lost and abandoned than I did when Philly rejected me.
He said nothing, just stood there with wide damp eyes, giving me this strange look that I couldn't comprehend. It disturbed me and made me want to throttle him.
"Just get into the wagon. We're heading to Rooksville this time," I announced, keeping one eye on the boy as I stood stiffly, fighting to tear my other eye from the grave.
"Did he have any family?" he asked me after three hour's silence of a bumpy, dusty wagon ride.
"None that I know of. I suppose we were the closest he had."
"Do you even know Doc's real name?"
"Doc Galen was the only name I knew him by, Johnny."
He winced. "You know my real name. I really don't want to be called by the name Doc forced upon me anymore."
"It's just a stage name."
"But having my name changed made me feel as if Doc didn't like who I was."
And many of Doc's actions often made me come to that same conclusion—he took Patrick in for his musical prowess and nothing else.
"But who wouldn't want to hear the music of a Johnny Swiftbow?"
"I wouldn't because I'd know Johnny's music is as fake as his name; no one's born with a name like that! Like Doc Galen. A fake name for a fake man."
"Patrick! You know better than to talk like that about a man who just died hours ago!" But I did see some reasoning in what he said. At least I was born an undeniable Payne.
"But Doc was a nasty—"
Perhaps Doc was, and I wasn't about to deny it, but I couldn't verbalize such things. I was too superstitious.
"Don't talk about the dead that way," I scolded under my breath.
"But he was a fake! He didn't help anyone!"
"He just stole everyone's money! Persuasively," he added thoughtfully.
"Well, that's the most honest way of stealing."
Then he really started carrying on like a little saint. I knew that he meant well in the beginning, but that bit about stealing made me feel ten times lower than I already was... He was right about it all, but I didn't want him looking at me like that. I always thought I was the good guy in Patrick's eyes, and I had hopes of staying that way.
"Look, how about you keep the past in the past and I do the same," I said. "Sound like a fair compromise to you?"
He seemed to mull that over a little, and then nodded.
"And that means neither one of us says another word about Doc since he's in the past," I added sternly.
He agreed to that. Reluctantly. It didn't make it much easier for either one of us, but it helped a little.
But the young buffalo only made me feel worse. I still felt obligated to keep it, even though it slowed us down somewhat. It was a perpetual reminder of Doc; it made me feel guilty. But some sense forced me to keep the buffalo as though I needed the guilt, like having an albatross hanging around my neck, only heavier and noisier.
Since we didn't have any paint to change the letters on the wagon (and considering that I possessed no artistic touch), we decided that I was simply the new Doc Galen.
It might've been foolish of me, but I was determined to go to Rooksville. We stopped at uncharted towns on the way down, and our receptions were generally promising. No longer was I to act the tragic valetudinarian, and finally we only purveyed the remedies that I approved of, the ones that might actually help the poor ailing folks. As for the warming ointment, we dumped that useless trash in a river. I still wonder what the fish thought of it.
For the first time in my life I felt successful—even though I was, as Patrick said, essentially a liar. But we made a good team. People loved his fiddle and my poetic recitations, and they bought the goods readily. I had an income and no place to spend it, so by my standards, I was becoming rich. The only downer was the buffalo. He kept everything in perspective and made me want to yell and claw my very skin off. But that would be as unsightly as the effects of Doc's warming ointment, so I didn't.
And then—Rooksville at last. The buffalo had grown large enough to be a majestic spectacle and attract adequate attention. My spirits soared as we came to the dinky town. To normal eyes, that place would've been nothing. To mine, it was Byzantium.
People came and pointed more so than I ever would've dreamed. The feeling of potential success and the desire for money made my heart clench with impatience, blinding me. Or maybe it was the Arizona sun that blinded my eyes. I could blame nature, but, as always, I think the blame was in me.
Patrick pointed out to me in a low, quivering voice that the locals didn't seem too friendly, but I refused to be contradicted. We wheeled straight into the snake pit of Rooksville, unable to turn back, the bison complaining and growing more anxious with each step.
Slowly I drove the creaking wagon through the throng of frowning faces. Patrick cowered as if to hide himself. And I sat there grinning like a congenial idiot.
I stopped the wagon when the sheriff appeared with a pistol in his hand, his star of authority blazing even more blind spots into my vision. He was accompanied by a short old man with a gray moustache of grandly drooping proportions. His face was lined and crackled like dry leather, and his squinty eyes had such a forlorn look about them—the very portrait of the silently musing grandfather, the sort of man only a heartless bastard could be able to wrong. And yet this seeming pacifist made me quake more than the brim-faced man with the gun pointed in my direction.
"You the real Doc Galen?" the sheriff demanded in a voice that would've suited a bear well if bears could speak. Preferably a bear with croup.
"That I am," I replied, trying to look confident as I drew myself up with a tip of my hat.
"The little feller next to you doesn't seem to agree." He nodded in Patrick's direction. "What's your real name?" he asked me.
By this point, my heart was persecuting my rib cage. "Dr. Tobias Payne. But what sane person would want to see a Dr. Payne for relief? I know I wouldn't, hence—"
"We had a different Doc Galen last time I recall."
"I... inherited the position. The late Doc Galen was buried over a month ago."
The sheriff's eyes widened. "And just how many Doc Galens are there?"
"Me and the late one, that's all."
"To the best of my knowledge, sheriff."
"I was wondering, because my old friend here happens to be the original Doc Galen. He took up residence here once he mended his ways, having spent some jail time for being a thief and a liar who ruined the health of some locals with his fraudulent tonics. Had no choice but to stay, considering his wagon and wares were stolen when he was locked behind bars."
"It was the dead Doc, not me! I've never been in this town before! He already had the wagon by the time I joined him! And I—I've got a diploma!"
The buffalo wailed.
"Why the buffalo, anyway?" the sheriff asked. The real Doc Galen remained a silent little ghost of judgment.
"Advertising. He drums up a crowd." His other purpose was penance, but I couldn't say that to anyone.
"Either way, I'm going to have to consider you an accomplice... "
I submitted. Any ignoramus could figure out what happened to me. I sat in the town jail, listening to the happy fiddle of Johnny Swiftbow, since he was deemed innocent and free to roam about. I whiled away my days thinking about the Doc Galen that I thought I knew. Sure, I knew the man wasn't completely honest, but I never suspected that he was that bad.
Regardless, he was right about the Rooksville snakes. They bite hard.
K. H. Fenner is a graduate of Georgian Court University, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English. She usually writes fiction set in the 19th century, often reflecting her interest in medical history. She currently resides in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.